Monday, January 31, 2005

Lovelier in Paris

Jan. 31, 2005

My father's birthday; he would have been 80 years old today.

In the morning, as soon as I wake up, I crawl down to the end of the bed, open the window and roll up the blind. The Pompidou Center in all its garish blues and reds rises up just beyond the gray buildings, the chimneys and rust-colored roofs.

When I go outside, finally, in mid-afternoon, it's warm enough to leave my coat open. I turn the corner out of my little street -- "Ah, the street they forgot," Joe said last night, walking me home -- and emerge into the swirl of pedestrian traffic in the Marais. I pick up some pears at a little market on rue Vielle du Temple. The first taste of the first slice is almost unbearably, almost obscenely sweet. I think I've never tasted a pear so perfectly ripe before. But maybe it's just that I've waited so long to eat.

On Saturday evening, Adrian came by with Barry, her friend from Santa Fe who's been visiting Paris for a few weeks (and who brought a "very special" bottle of red wine, too). She immediately declared that I'd gotten the deal of the century on this apartment, and helped me identify the monuments and landmarks visible from the windows: yes, that's the dome of St. Paul; and that's the "genie" (I'd always thought it was an angel) on the top of the column at the Bastille. Being on the top floor of an ancient building surrounded by other ancient buildings, I have plenty of privacy and all the peace and quiet I need. I'm high above the narrow little rue des Guillemites, which is a narrow, dark street with almost no traffic. The walls of the buildings seem to bow a bit in the middle, as if beginning to buckle under their own weight. Adrian peered over the edge of the balcony, ecstatic: "This was all a slum not very long ago. Look how everything's crumbling." I wonder what "guillemites" means?

Barry went off to meet some friends for dinner on the other side of town, and Adrian and I went out into the neighborhood -- her neighborhood and mine. We tried to get a table at one of her favorite restaurants, but it was Saturday night, no hope without a reservation. So we walked on a bit and decided to give Au Gamin de Paris a try. All of the tables in front were full and the bar was crowded, but the bartender told us, "Quelques minutes," and poured us each a kir. Very gallant, in that way of French men, making us feel welcome and cared for and carefree, all at once. But he didn't seem French, somehow, nor did the other waiters, at least one of whom looked as if he could have been the bartender's brother. Adrian cocked her ear and listened to them speaking to one another: "Arabic," she pronounced, "They're North African." Before we finished our kirs we were seated at a table near a fireplace full of candles and not far from a door that must have led to the kitchen, and from which we heard frequent bird calls -- a little too shrill, perhaps, but a good system for signaling when orders were ready. We shared salad and salmon and sole meuniere, then a piece of the chocolate gateau we'd spotted on the end of the bar when we'd walked in, and which Adrian insisted was part of the "regime," not dangerous to the waistline at all.

Later, we walked back to her apartment, where I picked up some things I'd left there last spring and borrowed a warm robe of Erica's. Then I walked home alone down rue des Archives, as a woman can do in Paris at midnight, with no fear for her safety. The streets were still full of pedestrians; the cafes still swarming and bright.

On Sunday, it was raining again. I left the apartment mid-afternoon and walked across the Seine along the Pont Neuf, knowing the rain wouldn't keep anyone at home, that the party I was going to, on the left bank, would already be in full swing when I arrived. When one passes others on the sidewalks with umbrellas, one has to raise her umbrella up to keep them from colliding. A sea of bobbing umbrellas; a tiny girl in a pink coat with a long hood that tapered into a point where it hung down her back, a pink tassel on the end.

I rang at 55 rue de Seine and, just as I was buzzed in, I heard someone running up behind me to get in the door before it closed. I turned on the stairs and saw Jeffrey Greene. We laughed and kissed hello. He told me he'd just gotten back to Paris from the country, just gotten back to France from the U.S., where he'd made another one of his 4,000 mile road trips. "You're crazy!" I said. "No, you're crazy!" he said. And we made our way up the stairs in the direction of the noise. I was happy to be walking in with him, both of us late, because I'd been afraid there wouldn't be anyone at the party I knew. But of course almost every poet I know in Paris was there: Jennifer Dick (who'd extended the invitation to me and RSVP'd on my behalf), Jenny Huxta, Michele Notebloom, Lisa Pasold, Heather Hartley, Barbara Beck, and a lot of other people who at least looked familiar. The occasion was a reception for and reading by American poet Rod Smith, hosted by American poet Joe Ross and his wife, Laura, who have recently moved to Paris from San Diego. When it was time for Rod to read, he stood in one corner of the sitting room, and those of us without chairs plopped down on the floor at his feet. At first I was afraid I was going to be bored -- uh oh, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry -- but then he started reading some poems from a notebook (still handwritten) about elves, really bizarre and hilarious poems that rearranged the old psychic furniture. Afterwards, Jeff and Heather and I hung around in the kitchen, giggling and gossiping. We tossed around the idea of putting together an anthology called BIG WHUP (how to spell that?) about all our stupid, failed romances. Jenny Huxta came through the kitchen and said she wanted to contribute, too.

When the party broke up, I walked to St. Michel and crossed the river there, then met Joe -- my jazz pianist pal who lives in a converted plumbing shop in the 19th -- in front of the Theatre de la Ville. We strolled to les Halles and had a casual dinner in a bistro, then headed back toward the Marais. I was craving chocolate -- what's new? -- and realized I had yet to enact my sacred ritual of eating a chocolate crepe in the street. Joe agreed to indulge with me, so we stopped at the next place we passed. I ordered a simple chocolate crepe, but Joe went for a crepe with Nutella AND banana AND almonds. The guy making our crepes just grinned. When he handed Joe this monstrous -- an ENTIRE banana -- concoction, Joe groaned. He had to walk me all the way back to my apartment just to finish it, and he still tossed at least a quarter of it in the bin. I just walked along happily dripping melted chocolate all over my coat. After Joe left, I went into the bathroom to wash my sticky hands and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I had chocolate on the end of my nose, chocolate on my chin. Lovely. I'm always lovelier in Paris.


Blogger plnelson said...

I'm a painter, among other things, and I was in Florence (Firenze) a couple of years ago. Now, I love Italy, especially Tuscany and Firenze, and I went there to walk the streets and hear the language and visit the museums. And my painting heroes are mostly Renaissance painters and my work is influenced by them.

But I could not paint there. I could barely draw. I could hardly lift a stick of charcoal. The sheer weight of precedent, of history, of all that art; the eyes of all those cherubs and angels and martyrs and saints and even Medicis staring down from the walls and ceilings and frescoes as if to say, "Well? What are you going to do that we haven't seen already?"

So I want to ask all the expatriate American writers in Paris, "How do you DO it?" How do you bear the unbearable weight of Stein and Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald? Of Mark Twain and Henry James? And the natives: Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, Zola, and all the others? How do you find your own voice amid the cacaphony of other voices echoing through the Parisian ages? What can you see or smell or hear or taste that hasn't been seen or smelled or heard or tasted, and written about by thousands of writers and poets and dreamers and hopeless romantics and all the other literary moths drawn to the City of Light before you?

And you certainly DO it, and I've read new and interesting poetry from even the current crop of expatriate American writers with their cell phones and internet connections. I just don't know how you do it.

I'm in Lowell Massachusetts where our major claim to poetic fame, Jack Kerouac, had the good grace to leave Lowell on an inspirational jaunt, so those of us who remain could find a quiet spot to hear our own voice, and write in it.

8:08 PM  

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